It started when I was young. Very young. So young that I can’t remember my first visit to a cemetery with my mother. Mom and my father didn’t spend a lot of time in cemeteries as a matter of course, but that changed every May when Memorial Day appeared on the monthly calendar.
The approaching date meant that graves and headstones needed to be cleaned of weeds, debris and the accumulation of dirt and dust of a long winter’s night.
An evening or two were set aside along with a couple of Saturday mornings just before the sun rose over the mountain peaks to the east. The time was dedicated to caring for the graves of our ancestors and family.
I loved those days that preceded the annual Memorial Day rolling party from cemetery to cemetery to not only pay homage to our dead but to meet and greet family and friends that we didn’t see too often.
The tradition lived on after I married and had my own family. In a personal way it expanded a great deal when I started volunteering to take photos of tombstones and collect records to place on Find-a-grave and other sites. I’ve come to love my quiet day trips to cemeteries when I’m alone or almost alone as I stroll through the rows of markers.
The quiet times are when I meet the interesting people. They visit to talk to their deceased family, leave a memorial or to confirm some dates for their genealogy research. They’ve made a special trip that day to accomplish a specific task. They are focused on the reason they are there.
Taking photos of tombstones requires a lot of bending, kneeling, brushing and trimming. Your back and knees begin to complain an hour into a photo taking excursion, so you tend to stand and stretch with increasing frequency.
That’s when I spot other visitors who have been there for a while. Often they are watching me wondering what I’m doing. Most think I’m safe but a few wonder if I’m a few degrees off bubble. I try to strike up a conversation with all of them to tell them what I’m doing and why and to hopefully elicit their own reason for visiting the cemetery that day.
My imagination couldn’t create most of stories I hear in these quiet conversations. Their stories range from the loss of husbands, children and parents that caused long term loss in the lives of my new friends. Friendships forged in battle both in war and in the struggle for survival in health are often detailed in stories that extend well beyond the expected short story as the words begin to flow. A listening ear, attentive focus and a few prompts for further details unfold stories that are better than any novel because they are about real people and usually happened in the life of the speaker.
Putting stories to the names and dates on the stones makes their memorial markers come to life. On subsequent strolls through the cemeteries with grandchildren in tow, I’m able to relate the stories to them as we make our way to the graves of our own ancestors. Their perception of cemeteries and the lives of those buried there is vastly different than those of many of their friends. They see cemeteries as welcoming places full of stories and family that they’ve never met but know thanks to hearing their stories over the years. As often as not, they tell the stories now. They have become real in their minds after hearing them repeatedly in earlier visits.
I’ve found cemetery friends all over the country as I’ve visited cemeteries in my own ancestral quest. Some of my favorite friends are young folks who like my grandchildren have been introduced to deceased family members through their stories as told by their parents and family.
Two young men in Amesbury, Massachusetts come to mind when I think of my first visit to a cemetery there. The cemetery is huge and I struggled to find the grave locations based on the verbal directions of a cemetery worker and then the two young men walked by.
It couldn’t hurt to ask them could it? I really didn’t expect them to know the answer to my question but maybe they could at least point me in the right direction. Not only did they know where my ancestors were buried, they also knew the stories of dozens of people buried in the graves long the way. At times, it was hard to keep up as both of them told the stories of the folks in passing graves at the same time.
I’ll never forget those two young men nor the day that went from frustration to enjoyment in the space of a few minutes.
How about you? Do you have cemetery friends too? Do you ever receive a message from the ether that says, “Meet Me in the Cemetery”? Ahh, yes! … Another friend to discover and meet for the first time. I wonder what their stories will entail?
Meet Me in the Cemetery. Maybe I’ll be listening to your stories next time.Copyright (c) Lee Drew 2013-07-18 07:00:00
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